How To Avoid This Common Error In Convincing Others


That well known phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am” has long been attributed to Joe Friday from the hit series Dragnet. It’s become such a popular quote that people who don’t even know who Joe Friday is, but they know the phrase.

Except that he never said it.

He did say something similar, “All we want are the facts, ma’am” and sometimes, “All we know are the facts, ma’am” but not the exact phrase he’s known for.

While it may be ironic that many people have their facts wrong about a popular phrase about facts, it’s a pretty common occurrence. Virtually everyone I’ve worked with (myself included) sometimes confuses facts and opinions.

I bring up this point with many corporate training programs that I’ve facilitated over the years. Whenever I teach a communication or presentation class, I’ll often use the following example:

I’ll say, “Your company, ABC, Inc., produces the best product/service in your industry.” Then, I’ll ask everyone in the room if it’s a fact or opinion. Typically, about half the group says fact and half the group says opinion.

I’ll often ask those who believed the statement to be factual to say why they think that. Most people will say something like, “Well, everyone just knows that,” or, “Clearly we do the best job…you can just tell in our products that there is no competition.”

I’ll then ask if their competitors across the street would consider their statement to be factual.


The problem for most of us is that the things we consider to be facts are typically just strongly held opinions. It’s only factual if 1) the statement can be independently verified and 2) almost every reasonable person would agree with it.

As much as you might wish that your organization’s product or service was the best in the industry, I can find thousands of people at your competitors that would argue the point. Anything that can be argued by a reasonable person is likely an opinion.

I observe people trying to convince others of something by simply citing opinions over and over. When pressed, they then come up with non-specific evidence such as, “Studies show that…” or, “I got an email about it…” or, “I think I read an article awhile back…” or, my personal favourite, “I found it on a Google search.”

If the standard for factual evidence is finding something on the internet, then everyone is right about everything.

Opinions are credible when they are supported by actual facts. Actual facts from an independent source sound more like this: “J.D. Power & Associates reported this year that we are #1 in customer satisfaction.” Or, perhaps, “We’ve just released our annual report showing that we shipped 43% more units this past year than any of our competitors in this product category.”

The above claims are verified by an independent party and are hard to dispute.

Once you know you have a fact, then you can follow it up with an opinion. Here’s what it sounds like, “J.D. Power & Associates reported this year that we are #1 in customer satisfaction. We’ve just released our annual report, showing that we shipped 43% more units this past year than any of our competitors in this product category. Therefore, we have the best product in this market.” (The last sentence is the opinion…now a lot more credible).

You might still disagree with the opinion, but you’d have a hard time arguing the facts leading up to it.

How are you using facts right now in convincing others? Leave a comment below.

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